A few weeks back, I tuned into sports talk radio just as an 11-year-old called at 10 on a weeknight to submit his mock draft to the show’s host. He wanted his team to draft a running back and linebacker with its first two picks, and when the host pushed back on that rationale—the team needs a quarterback, he said—the little guy rebutted with a list of reasons to retain the team’s incumbent quarterback and bolster an already strong corps of receivers.
And while this scene may seem laughably weird to some, the truth is that I have to recalibrate my view of leisure (and child development) to recognize the fact that this is a somewhat new and rather bizarre way to love a sport.
For many Americans, football fandom is a knowledge contest, an anxious dedication to information gathering that drives us to consume the NFL’s human-resources wing as entertainment. Last year, more than 7.9 million of us watched the draft and another 7.3 million viewed some portion of the scouting combine. This year, the draft moved from April to May, a transition attributed to a scheduling glitch: Radio City Music Hall, the draft’s venue in recent years, booked a Rockettes Easter special during the NFL’s big weekend. But it’s a favor, really: We need more time for recreational panic, more time for our 11-year-olds to prognosticate with radio hosts.
Draft obsession is now a year-round process that leads fans to scan mock drafts and seek scouting reports from analysts long in advance of the actual draft event. It’s debatable, though, whether our love-fest with talent acquisition is good for us—or, for that matter, for the sport. Even the emblem of today’s football consumption—Mike Mayock, the NFL network analyst—has his concerns.
Mayock became a recognizable figure in sports around 2005, when he joined the NFL Network’s coverage of the scouting combine; before, though he’d played a couple of seasons for the New York Giants, he had been relatively unknown. But like Mel Kiper, the ESPN analyst who pioneered the draft media industry with his capacious notes and auctioneer cadence, Mayock showed he could spout details about prospects, even those who would likely never see an NFL field.
The challenge seemed ambitious at the time: Mayock had to walk viewers through the combine’s 40-yard dashes and bench presses, all in the name of entertainment. Even his father, a former offensive line coach at Penn and head coach in suburban Philadelphia high schools, was skeptical that the event would gain traction with the audience. When Mayock spoke with his father after the network’s first ever combine broadcast, his father confessed that he had to turn off the pedantry on his TV.
Nevertheless, Mayock’s work at the combine served as his breakout. His analysis during the NFL Network’s draft coverage further boosted his profile, but the broadcast booth made him the symbol of football consumption today. For the past few years, he’s offered color commentary for the NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football and NBC Sports’ Notre Dame coverage. When he calls a game for a high-profile college prospect, he references a player’s pro potential and projected draft value. For NFL games, he recalls combine statistics or anecdotes he learned during his draft research. His very presence in the booth offers tacit approval of the way fans conflate football’s games with its draft.
On a Thursday afternoon in April, Mayock is hunkered in front of tape from last November’s Louisiana State-Alabama game, the third film in the day’s study of LSU’s quarterback and receivers. He’s a reputed film junkie, and though he’s watched these guys before, he wants to refresh notes before he visits their on-campus workout for pro scouts. He’ll have to scan the tapes again to focus on running backs and offensive linemen. But for now he's paying attention to just a few players, or really just one: Jarvis Landry, the pass-catching conundrum.
Landry is the type of prospect who gives guys like Mayock cause to both cash paychecks and curse in their sleep. He had a prolific college career, but during the combine his shortcomings showed through a 40-yard dash of 4.77 seconds, vertical leap of 28 inches, and broad jump of 110 inches. Those numbers test well among most subsets of humankind but not NFL wide receivers: His vertical jump placed him behind 38 receivers and ahead of just one, and his broad jump was also second-worst in his position group.
Herein lies the “fun” of covering the draft like Mayock does, or of just following along. In this context, Landry is a problem, a riddle to solve just as much as he’s a young man to know. Do his test numbers indicate he won’t get open against NFL defenses, or does his success in real game situations prove he runs routes well enough to give his quarterback at least a small window to complete a pass? Does Landry need to be open, or can he use his 10-and-a-quarter-inch mitts to corral passes that hover between him and a defender?
For all of Landry’s negatives, Mayock likes him. He says he just jotted down a note that Landry could be a combination of Anquan Boldin and Hines Ward, speed-deficient but tough with great hands.
When Mayock started his work, most information about prospects was relegated to team officials and media members. But now, anyone could develop informed opinions about someone like Landry. Anyone who wants to can study six of his games and learn about his perceived value on mock draft sites. Walter Cherepinsky, the founder of one such site, tells me it gets 40 million visits per month. (One of his recent mocks has Landry going to the Carolina Panthers with the 92nd selection.) For the most committed students, there are draft guides such as Matt Waldman’s Rookie Scouting Portfolio, more than 1,200 pages about offensive prospects. Waldman writes that Landry blocks and runs routes like a reserve player, but he catches passes like an NFL star.
While the adage tells us knowledge is power, though, it’s less clear how all of this information empowers draft-obsessed fans. That 11-year-old from the sports talk show wanted his team to select a receiver, but wanting that or having an argument in favor of it won’t make it so. What erudition of this sort provides is a sense of autonomy, in terms of identity, a guard against power abused. NFL insiders tend to whisper the same general stat: that one-third of the league’s general managers have no business overseeing personnel decisions—they’re either misguided in the way they evaluate players or they don’t bother to put in the requisite research. Draft savvy, then, lets fans separate their outcomes (the success of their favored college prospects) from those of their favorite teams (the players chosen by their teams and the team’s outcome on the field); fans can timestamp their opinions and later say, “I told you so.”
But does this kind of autonomy relieve fans’ helplessness, or does it make them feel more like pawns beholden to the real draft-day outcomes they want to control but can’t? Let’s say you’re sure, after months of research, your team should use its third-round pick on a quarterback, but the team instead drafts a punter—a punter—and the quarterback selected five slots later goes on to win a Super Bowl within two seasons. Besides a conniption, this could also give you a grudge to unleash on team executives, message board commenters, and media members who disagree with your football opinions.
Daniel Jeremiah, one of Mayock’s fellow analysts at the NFL Network, scouted for three NFL teams before moving to the TV side of the draft world. He says fans rival the passion of team scouts when vouching for a prospect, but the arguments they offer are different. Fans like to point out statistics and awards, whereas team scouts don’t bother—they stick to identifying player attributes they might translate to the NFL. “I’ve never been in a draft room and said, ‘How do we have this guy so low? He won the Biletnikoff Award. He won the Mackey Award. He was a first-team All-American,’” Jeremiah says. “That argument’s never going to make its way to a draft room, but I get it quite a bit on social media.”